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In this thoughtful and open-minded narrative, Nigerian doctor and novelist Uzodinma Iweala explores the reality of HIV and AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. Beginning with the stereotypical storyline of the illness's destructive impacts through the fictional tale of promiscuous, ignorant, naive and ultimately helpless ‘Jerome’, Iweala goes on to challenge this misconception, and the way in which the epidemic has added to the unrealistic identification of Africa as a continent of pain and suffering.
As he leads us across Nigeria the many people he speaks to share their hugely diverse experiences of the infection, from the HIV-positive mother for whom her status has become little more than a managed addition to the ordinary chores of daily life to the HIV-negative youth leader who passionately describes himself as ‘in love’ with his work in community-based HIV and AIDS education.
Iweala examines whether promiscuous sexual practices, given that they are far from unique to sub-Saharan Africa, or a feebleness and incompetence so often assigned to the continent are really to blame, or whether a larger culpability lies instead in the stigmatisation these assumptions create. Highlighting the vicious circle created by the image of HIV as a death sentence and punishment for immoral acts, whereby victims are isolated or discouraged from seeking treatment for fear of being discovered, he explains how the ‘silent’ killer has the luxury to take hold of its prey and spread undiscussed. He calls for a change in attitude: judgment and pity only increase the distance and detachment between those with and those without HIV, whether within Nigeria or in the way outsiders consider sub-Saharan Africa. This undermines efforts to increase access to treatment and limits overseas involvement and aid. To quote the closing statement, ‘we are all human. AIDS, however real, cannot change that’, and as the title subtly implies, if we are truly going to beat the epidemic we must see all people as ‘Our Kind of People’—the kind who are at risk from HIV. In his objective and impartial yet considerate approach Iweala's reasoning is very convincing.
While a slight generalisation is made in focusing on Nigeria alone when applying findings to sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, and while it would be interesting to see perspectives from people of other sub-Saharan African countries, I really enjoyed this account. It is sensitively written and if any book could successfully reshape attitudes toward the HIV epidemic as Iweala wishes, this is the one.
‘Our Kind of People: Thoughts on the HIV/AIDS epidemic’ by Uzodinma Iweala, Published by John Murray Publishers, London, 2012, pp. 228, ISBN: 978-071952-340-3.
Competing interests None.
Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.